How we put an end to the chaos

Question: On your website, much is written about the University library and about what has been done to save some parts of its collections. Could you provide some more details on what has already been done, what remains to be done and who is responsible for what happened to the library in the past?
Answer: St Petersburg University Press Secretary Aleksey Zavarzin 

  1. The Library of the St Petersburg Society of Naturalists

In the early 1990s, the book collection that was housed in the University building at 5 Mendeleevskaya Line on Vasilyevsky Island included some real treasures from the 19th and early 20th centuries and tens of thousands of titles in all. The core of the collection was the so-called Library of the Imperial St Petersburg Society of Naturalists, an organisation that was established in 1868 at St Petersburg Imperial University. At this time, the entire collection was handed over to the St Petersburg Society of Naturalists, a regional non-profit organisation that had been registered in 1992. The founders of this organisation justified the transfer of state property to a recently established non-governmental organisation on the grounds that the society was the ‘legal heir’ of the Imperial St Petersburg Society of Naturalists and thus the book collection, which preserved its historical name, belonged to the ‘recreated’ Society of Naturalists (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meetings held on 04 April, 2011 and 27 April, 2015).

As a result of intervention by the current rector, St Petersburg University regained the book collection in 2011. At present, the University is in the process of systematically describing and including information about the book collection in the e-catalogue, so as to register it in the University’s centralised library and accounting records. All data on the titles thus registered are being checked against newly found books in the library’s inventory. The books are being separated, first according to their origin (Russian or foreign) and then according to the type of publication: monographs, periodicals, serial editions, reprints, and dictionaries. To date, in accordance with University regulations, more than 27,500 publications, which are already part of the permanent collection, have been registered with the library and accounting offices, put into circulation and made available for borrowing by patrons of the library.  The University has no information as yet on whether all the books from the collection have been preserved or if some of them have been ‘lost’. This will be known only after all the books in the collection have been catalogued.

  1. The Library of the Bestuzhev Courses

Around seven years ago, the dean of one of the faculties filed a request with the rector to have the so-called Library of Women’s Higher Education (the now-defunct Bestuzhev) Courses relocated from the building where it had historically been housed, at 33 10th Line on Vasilyevsky Island, to another building, so that the vacated premises would be available for use. The dean planned to renovate these historical rooms with remnants of oak wainscoting on the walls, which had been home to the library ever since the building had been constructed in 1885, and she intended to do so ‘with funding that was at her disposal’. She then planned to use them for filming by the University’s TV studio, which at that time was in adjacent premises. She also informed the University administration that the library was hardly being used. The rector then launched an inquiry, which revealed that both the premises and book collections were in a dire state: some books were simply piled on the floor, while others were badly damaged and needed to be restored. In addition, there was no control over access to the library. According to some of the librarians, during the last few months prior to the inspection, thieves had broken into the premises several times, but no one had reported this to the police (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 27 February,  2012).

At present, in keeping with a decision taken by the rector, the University is taking consistent measures to introduce the collections in the Library of the Bestuzhov Courses to the reading public, which means setting up an e-catalogue, classifying the holdings according to the different collections and restoring the historical arrangement. The Bestuzhev Courses E-Library project is also well underway; it contains the archives of the Bestuzhev Courses, historical materials and documents, along with works by professors, teachers and graduates of the courses. Both the e-catalogue and e-library are already available on-line. There is a special section, The Library of the Bestuzhev Courses, on the webpage of the St Petersburg University Scientific Library, and it provides a wealth of information about the book collections, their history, the people who were involved, and publications on the history of this library. The University publishing house has put out several articles and two longer works that reveal the contents of the book collections.

  1. A collection of newspapers

It was in the spring of 2008 when the dean of the Faculty of Psychology submitted a request to the rector to resolve the question once and for all about moving a ‘branch of the University library’ out of several rooms at 6 Makarov Embankment. She explained that there were clearly not enough rooms in the building to be used for teaching purposes. Nobody knew who had decided to take over these basement rooms to satisfy the needs of the University library, when it had happened and why. During an inspection of the premises, it emerged that these rooms housed a collection of old newspapers and a bookbinder’s workshop. A quarter of the workshop’s premises were taken up by equipment, including some that was old and dilapidated, which was being kept for a rainy day. There were no records on who had sent books there for binding, how many had actually been bound and which books they were. What is more, a great majority of them, as the inspection revealed, were not even related to the University. Concerning the newspaper collection, records had been preserved, and they showed that it had been used at most four times a week. By a decision of the rector, the newspaper collection, containing some newspapers that dated back to before 1917 and others from the first years of the Soviet regime, which had already been taken out of circulation by 1945, was transferred to the University’s main building, where it is now stored along with the main collection of the St Petersburg University Scientific Library. The vacated premises at 6 Makarov Embankment are now being used as classrooms.

  1. Books discovered on University premises in the Petrodvortsovy District of St Petersburg

After he had received information that some University’s premises in the Petrodvortsovy District were being used as a horse stable (which, surprisingly, was true), the rector decided to take a look at the place  himself, and, during the course of his visit, he discovered, quite by chance, several hundred thousand books in a University building there. In rooms that were completely unsuitable for keeping books, he came upon collections from some ‘specialised’ libraries, for example the Library of the First Sociological Society in Russia and the Exchange and Reserve Collection. During the course of an investigation into the matter, it emerged that their presence in a warehouse in this district could be traced back to 1983, when Leningrad State University was compelled to relinquish premises that they had been using at the former Smolny Institute (at 3 Smolny Street) to the Leningrad City Executive Committee and other city agencies. As a result, most of the social science collections were transferred to a building at 41 Sredny Prospect on Vasilyevsky Island. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, most of the premises in University buildings on Vasilyevsky Island were being used by different businesses having nothing to do with the University, such as restaurants (2/11 9th Line, Bldg. A, Vasilyevsky Island.; 15 6th Line, Bldg. A, Vasilyevsky Island; 66 5th Line, Bldg. A, Vasilyevsky Island), private clinics (5 Mendeleevskaya Line, Bldg. A; 20 Korablestroiteley Street, Bldg. 1A; 77 8th Line, Bldg. A, on Vasilyevsky Island), hotels (20 Korablestroiteley Street, Bldg. 1A; 3 Kapitanskaya Street, Bldg. A), grocer’s shops (20 Korablestroiteley Street, Bldg. 1A.; 7-9-11 University Embankment.; 41 Sredny Prospect, Bldg. 1A), and offices of private companies affiliated with the administrations of the faculties. At that time, the question arose about the need for the University to vacate those premises which housed book collections, and in 2001, the University administration made an attempt to transfer some of the Scientific Library’s collections from premises at 41 Sredny Prospect on Vasilyevsky Island to vacant bomb shelters and basement rooms at 7-9 University Embankment (Order No 851/1 issued on 04 October, 2001). When the Scientific  Library’s director Natalia Sheshina refused to carry out this order, as those premises were frequently flooded and entirely unsuitable for storing books, Vice-Rector for Facilities Management Lev Ognev  (learn more from the following: Petersburg Legal Portal, Garant.Ru, Lenizdat.Ru, Zaks.Ru, Pravda and Komsomolskaya Pravda) ordered that all the books be stuffed into  construction waste bags, which was done by students from the nearby Khroulyov Military Academy of Logistics, and taken away on lorries to the Petrodvortsovy District (see these publications on the University website: ‘Books returned to their readers’, ‘Rector's interview: The Rector of St Petersburg University speaks openly about University revenues’ and ‘How the University Administration brings income to the University’).

At the present time, University staff are methodically going through the collections that were rescued in 2001 so as to organise them and to come up with the best conditions for storing them. They have been separated into categories and labelled according to the period during which they were published and the type of publication: Russian books published before 1917, between 1917 and 1945, and after 1945; foreign books published before 1945 and after 1945. The storage system has also been optimised. Some of the books have been set aside for permanent storage. All of them have been arranged on shelves in alphabetical order and catalogued electronically. Russian publications from before 1917 are now being arranged in alphabetical order, after which they will be checked against the General Alphabetical Catalogue to determine if any of the titles are missing from the collection of the Scientific Library. Since the work on the depository holdings started, 12,008 publications have been made available to readers.

  1. A hundred thousand books in the basement of the Jeu de Paume

During an inspection of the University’s main building and other buildings adjacent to it, Rector Nikolay Kropachev discovered around 100,000 volumes in the basement of the Jeu de Paume. This inspection, carried out with the Director of the Russian State Historical Archive, Professor Alexander Sokolov, showed that these books were being stored in violation of all the rules and regulations. Many books were piled up in heaps between the stacks, and two rooms (6 and 14 sq.m.) were crammed full of books from floor to ceiling, so that when the doors were opened, the books literally poured out. Furthermore, the keys to these rooms were not kept by the security guards but, instead, by the Deputy Head of the Department of Physical Training and Sports, whose office was in the same building. The inspection also showed that certain collections of books on particular topics, as the RSHA director surmised from the look of things, had been readied to be whisked off the premises.

In order to ensure the safety of the collections, the University is currently moving them to premises that have been set aside for temporary storage. The books are being dusted and treated with special chemicals (a 1 % solution of metatin). After treatment, the publications are being put at some distance from each other on shelves in those rooms where they will be stored. This is being done in a manner that will preserve the order in which they had already been arranged.

The recent history of the University book collections cannot but be attributed to both the deliberate policy and hands-off attitude to the library collections of the previous administration. Law-enforcement authorities are in possession of all the facts, but, apparently, they do not feel that these activities have caused much harm to the public.

Should you or other users of the St Petersburg University Virtual Reception have any information about other places at the University where unregistered book collections are being kept, please inform the University administration. You can write directly to the Senior Vice-Rector for Economics, Elena Chernova.